‘Watchmen’ Is a Revolution — So Why Are the X-Men Still Afraid of Blackness?
Photo: HBO

‘Watchmen’ Is a Revolution — So Why Are the X-Men Still Afraid of Blackness?

The show is an…

When I was six years old, I bought a VHS tape of the early-’90s cartoon X-Men: The Animated Series. At the beginning of the tape, Stan Lee discussed the Marvel mutants he’d created as being a stand-in for the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Professor X represented Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of nonviolent protest, fighting for acceptance from a group of people who hates and fears him; his nemesis Magneto, who fought for mutant separatism and supremacy, played the Malcolm X-shaped foil to that vision.

At least, I think that’s what happened. Memory being what it is, I can’t prove to you that he actually said this. While people have pointed to the obvious analogy for decades, there’s little to suggest that Lee ever acknowledged it. Not that it matters: since the X-Men came to mainstream popularity in the ’80s, writers and fans alike have treated the franchise as an allegory for the way marginalized people — namely Black folks — are treated in America. That’s part of the reason the X-Men franchise has been my favorite in all of comics.

But addressing racism symbolically can never replace actual reckoning with what America does to Black folks. X-Men, both in comics and movies, continues to fail to do so directly. Now, though, it has a new role model to guide the way. HBO’s Watchmen, in the thick of its debut season, serves as a necessary reminder that comic-book tales of heroism and justice can be more than a metaphor — that race and American history can, and should, be tackled head-on.

Every superhero origin story starts with trauma. A kid in Gotham City watching his parents murdered in front of him, a scientist caught in an explosion of gamma radiation, a high school kid bitten by a spider before inadvertently allowing his uncle to be killed. These stories are about the ways that trauma transforms us into our best selves.

Blackness is a superhero origin story.

The Black American origin story is one of trauma; one of enslavement and slaughter. The Black American hero’s journey is the ways that we have survived, thrived, and transformed ourselves — and the country — in defiance of those plights inflicted upon us. HBO’s Watchmen, a continuation of Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ iconic mid-’80s comic book series, has, rather unexpectedly, grasped the concept of the Black superhero narrative and used that understanding to reimagine comics’ most revered and referenced origin story: Superman.

You know it, even if you don’t think you do. An infant’s parents, realizing the impending doom of their home planet of Krypton, send their son to Earth so he can live on after they die. The child crash-lands in Smallville, Kansas, to be found by a married couple who are incapable of having children of their own. They take the boy in and raise him to embrace the morals of truth, justice, and the American way. Proper nurturing from loving souls, we’re told, can kindle heroism in any child, even one from another planet.

In the 81 years since Action Comics #1 first told the tale, Superman’s origin has been the subject of retooling, remixing, and revisiting. DC Comics, Superman’s publisher, dedicated an imprint to the phenomenon: From 1989 to 2003, Elseworlds books played out various tweaks to Superman’s beginnings. What if he landed in Russia instead? Or Kryptonians invaded Earth before their planet got destroyed? Or Superman landed in Gotham instead of Smallville? Earlier this year, James Gunn produced Brightburn, essentially a feature-length Elseworlds movie that asks: What if Superman was evil?

Similarly, HBO’s Watchmen gives us an Elseworlds Superman rooted in the trauma of being Black in America. The 1921 Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma remains the worst mass killing of Black people in American history. The tragedy has become folklore in Black communities — a real-life boogeyman in the form of a hundreds-strong white militia bombing, lynching, and murdering hundreds of Black men and women, erasing an entire neighborhood from existence and leaving nothing but smoke and carcasses. That’s where the series opens; as Armageddon rains down, a Black couple smuggles their young boy out of town in a small box. The child gets away, but is left lost, orphaned, and alone — his only companion, an abandoned baby he finds wrapped in an American flag.

The premise of a Superman dipped in black, emerging from America’s devastatingly cruel history of lynching and racist mass murder, is a radical act of transformation.

Placing Superman’s origin in Tulsa frames Black Wall Street as a utopia, just as Superman creator Jerry Siegel portrayed Krypton. The destruction of a thriving Black community is the literal end of a world, with the audience wondering how any superhero can rise from such devastation — and what truth, justice, or the American way looks like to a boy when it’s the American way that destroyed his home in the first place.

The answer comes when that boy grows up to be Will Reeves, a New York cop in the ’50s. After being attacked and nearly lynched by white-supremacist co-workers, Reeves turns that trauma into his superhero costume: noose still around his neck, he becomes Hooded Justice, the first superhero in the Watchmen universe. The allusions to Superman become clear early; in the first episode, we first meet present-day Reeves (his oldest incarnation played by Louis Gossett Jr.) wearing a blue shirt and red vest. But the connection crystallizes later in the season, when someone asks Reeves if he’d read Action Comics #1 — the book that introduced Kal-El to the world.

The premise of a Superman dipped in black, emerging from America’s devastatingly cruel history of lynching and racist mass murder, is a radical act of transformation that speaks directly to any comic book fan who has had to endure decades of white-dude superhero movies. The Reeves/Hooded Justice origin plays as a backdrop to the show’s central story of a Black woman (Angela, played by Regina King) fighting against white nationalism in a world where Johnnie Cochran attempted reparations legislation and Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Treasury Secretary. A story where she dons a cape and a mask to become Sister Night, beats up white supremacists, and laughs in the face of white women who try to intimidate her.

Damon Lindelof, who created the HBO series, has surrounded himself with Black voices and used his whiteness as a shield for those people to create a profoundly Black take on an American classic. “I brought together a writer’s room where the white dudes — there were only four of us out of 12 people — had to sit back,” he said to Gen in October. “I had to hear some hard truths.” Those truths have suffused the show, turning what could easily have been just another comic-book project into something far more urgent.

While Watchmen reinvents what a superhero can be, the X-Men franchise is undergoing its own transformation. The last few months have seen superstar comic book writer Jonathan Hickman rebuild the X-Men folklore from the ground up. In two books, House and X and Powers of X, he’s torn apart 50 years of idealistic status quo, the futile hope of being accepted by humanity, and instead created a new vision in which being wholly self-sufficient is enough. In Hickman’s interpretation, Professor X and Magneto have met in the middle of their philosophies and agreed upon a separatist, segregated mutant society away from humans, one with their own language, own tradition, and own concepts of family and love. Dreams of coexistence have given way to the realization that humanity’s hatred for mutants will always supersede any considerations for peace; now, mutants just want to be left alone to survive.

Hickman lays out the arc masterfully, with shock twists and emotional resonance on par with any prestige drama show on TV. In the masterpiece of his short run so far, September’s House Of X #4, we see the sheer pain Xavier feels after seeing his children murdered again, after years of genocides and mass murders. The refrains “No More” and “Look What They’ve Done” echo throughout the book, evoking any marginalized voice exhausted by the inundation of images of death and mayhem. It feels like Black sentiment. And Hickman’s take on the franchise has been the best X-Men has seen in a decade.

Hickman’s run imagines a world for mutants unburdened by the gaze and oppression of humans — in the same way many Black folks may want a world untouched by the weight of whiteness.

Yet, watching Watchmen has caused me to reflect on the way I’ve allowed myself to consume X-Men, and many mainstream comics: settling for allegories and metaphors rather than a true reckoning with race in America. The show, and the themes it unflinchingly steers into, is a reminder that I can ask for more than a book that feels like it is speaking to me. I can want and expect to read books about mutants that actually speak to me as a Black person — because it’s being communicated by Black voices and features Black faces on the pages. Allegories for Blackness, no matter how masterfully they are handled, aren’t enough. It should have never been enough. The very nature of being an allegory means falling short of the nuance that constitutes reality. There is no stand-in for the Black experience. There is no metaphor for Tulsa.

I wonder if anyone at Marvel knows how much Black people love the X-Men. How the cartoon lit up our imaginations like an Ace in Gambit’s hand. How Storm and Bishop are Black icons. When Hickman writes about mutants carrying past trauma with them, I wonder if he thinks about how Black people absorb it. I wonder if he consults any Black people about his words. I don’t know the answers, so I’m left trying to figure out if something conceptualized almost exclusively by white voices, featuring mostly white characters, can speak directly to my Blackness. Everything I know about art and culture tells me no, but there are moments throughout that I feel intimately connected to as a Black man — and have throughout a lifetime of reading X-Men.

Hickman’s run imagines a world for mutants unburdened by the gaze and oppression of humans — in the same way many Black folks may want a world untouched by the weight of whiteness. A line can be drawn to the ideologies of Marcus Garvey’s calls to return to Africa, or Frantz Fanon’s decolonization ideals, or Kwame Nkrumah’s dream of a unified Africa. I just don’t know if he’s drawing those lines, or if I am.

Hickman’s X-Men take and Watchmen have both captivated me. But with X-Men, I still find myself waiting for it to be something it has never been, and could so beautifully become. Watchmen represents that next step: Art that doesn’t need the idea of Blackness because it is Blackness, with Black creators, Black characters, and Black history. Hickman’s magic is in his imagination. Watchmen’s magic is understanding the moments when imagination isn’t always needed — because the real stories have already told themselves.